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Movie Reviews:

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

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I'll let you in on a little secret... a secret about one of the most common failings in movies. A secret that Hollywood would do well to learn. That secret is simply this: A good movie must know exactly what kind of movie it is. Now, I'm not just talking about genre here, though that's part of it. A movie needs to be aware of itself, of its limitations and its strengths, and not try to force itself into being something it isn't.

What am I talking about, then? Examples might be illustrative here.

Ed Wood is considered to be one of the worst, if not the worst, directors in the history of film. He has a cult following precisely because his movies are so horrendously bad. Much of his problems, however, related to his inability to acknowledge the limitations of the movies he was making; in his most famous film, Plan 9 From Outer Space, he was laden with sub-par actors, but he expected them to pull off over-the-top dialogue convincingly. No matter, he made do. He was given a miniscule budget appropriate to a dialogue-heavy, action-light introspective piece, but his vision for the movie was epic. No matter, he made do. Usually with barely-appropriate stock footage. He wanted to show aliens, but he also wanted to show zombies; it was to be both futuristic and gothic. The story wasn't appropriate to this difficult blending of the two genres, but no matter. He made do.

The resulting film couldn't help but be bad. Some have called it the worst film in history. Yet given better resources it could have been, if not a science fiction classic, good entertainment. Yes, I'm aware that it was still "good" entertainment, just for all the wrong reasons. I don't think anyone could effectively argue that the film was successful by any conventional means of measurement.

Take this from a different angle. In my own opinion, Kevin Smith is a highly overrated director... However, he is able to recognize the limitations of his resources and film. Clerks had the tiniest of budgets and irregular acting, but it was successful because Smith played with the strengths of the film and tried to use those strengths to circumvent the weaknesses.

So what does all this have to do with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow?


With one exception (which I'll touch upon later), this is a movie that knows exactly what kind of movie it is: a massive homage to pulp, comic books, and movie serials of yore, in which things like story and acting takes a backseat (as they must) to the far-more-important aspects of adventurous fun, stunts, and excuses to throw eye-candy up on the screen. It could have been horrible. It could have been mind-numbingly, eye-explodingly bad. Certainly, it's such a haphazard blending of so many different genres, an homage to so many different sources all tossed into the cuisinart together, that it couldn't help but be a terrible movie? Right?

Well, actually, it's good. Very good. It doesn't even bother dealing with things like plot or character save in the most cursory manner, and only in order to then dismiss them with a casual hand-wave of, "Never mind. Don't think about that. In fact, don't think at all. Just enjoy the ride." And as we discover, it doesn't need these things -- they would have served only as ballast.

This is a movie which, after sending the audience through a slam-pow ride through aerial dogfights, rampaging robots, a himilayan paradise, and a flying British aircraft carrier, tosses dinosaurs onto the screen, to which the viewers have no choice but think to themselves, "Yes. Yes, dinosaurs, of course. It makes perfect sense."

Sky Captain works primarily on a visual level. This is not to say that the special effects are groundbreaking. They're very good, true, but they're certainly not the best I've ever seen, and they're still laden by all the limitations of CGI (ah, but for the days of Blade Runner and all its wonderful model-based special effects). Here, however, Sky Captain takes a page from video games and the way the latter usually handles CGI: through the romantic lens. Basically, this means that everything is covered with a soft focus. The result is that the gleam of metal on the real car looks almost indistinguishable (and therefore, no more or less real) from the gleam of metal on the rampaging robots. Thus, while not the best CGI I've ever seen, it's certainly some of the most effective, and this is made possibly simply because of the myriad genres the movie seeks to emulate -- the Spiderman movies certainly couldn't get away with the soft focus at work here, for example, although it would solve many of their CGI woes.

This movie is not perfect. Luckily, its greatest weakness is also in the most unimportant area: the acting. Imagine how much it would have weakened the Indiana Jones movies would have been had Harrison Ford tried to play his role seriously, rather than in the vein of the pulp books on which the movies were based. Luckily, Harrison Ford is smarter than that -- he knew exactly how to play the role. Unfortunately, the three main stars -- Law, Paltrow, and Jolie -- don't seem to catch on to the idea that they're portraying pulp characters.

Admittedly, I thought that they did at first. Gwyneth Paltron, in her first scene as the indefatigable Polly Perkins, plays up the sheer pulpiness (if I'm allowed to make up a word) of the dialogue, and Jude Law, in his first appearance as Joe 'Sky Captain' Sullivan, does the straight-shooting British flyboy type character to the hilt. After this, though, they seem to try to play their characters as serious, putting more emotion into the dialogue and the situations than they should. In the end, their portrayal of the characters just seemed a little off. This doesn't detract from the movie too much, since as I've mentioned things like story and character take a back seat (as they should) to the more important elements of the movie, but it does keep the movie from being quite the piece of brilliance it could have been.

All minor flaws aside, though, Sky Captain is still a wonderful movie, and I urge all my readers to see it at earliest opportunity.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Cute White Rats.

Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 10:34 p.m.


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